Khan of shehnai

Published : Sep 08, 2006 00:00 IST

Bismillah Khan at a concert in Bangalore in May 2005. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Bismillah Khan at a concert in Bangalore in May 2005. - K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Peerless shehnai player Ustad Bismillah Khan leaves behind a repertoire of sublime music.

Ustad Bismillah Khan (1916-2006) who first brought shehnai, a problematic reed instrument, to the concert stage nearly 70 years ago, passed away in his beloved city of Varanasi on August 21. He was tired and old, though not full of sleep. A singular man, he had certainly earned his reprieve from the material world after his prodigious artistic labours and dedicated, though not always, efficient attempts to meet the needs of some 70 dependents.

Of Khan Saheb it can be said that there was no dichotomy between his life and art as one fused into the other effortlessly. He was 21 when he astonished listeners at the All India Music Conference in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1937. For almost 50 years since then he remained a peerless shehnai player. Ali Hussain of Calcutta, Anant Lal of Varanasi, not to forget Jagadish Prasad Qamar from the walled city of old Delhi, all played the shehnai with a certain mastery of technique and the understanding of a given raga. But no one had Bismillah Khan's poignant tone or subtle sense of harmonics.

He could bring a lump in the throat of the layman and the connoisseur alike playing a simple folk tune or a many-layered bandish in a majestic raga like Yaman. Where he got this gift of music from is a matter of conjecture though he attributed all his accomplishments jointly to Allah, the formless maker of the universe, and Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

Musically, he certainly had a genetic advantage. His ancestors were court musicians in Dumraon, a small principality in the United Provinces, now in Bihar. His uncle Ali Baksh alias Vilayatu was attached to the Viswanath temple in Varanasi and groomed him in the art of playing simultaneously to Siva inside the precincts and the public outside. The two of them and their accompanists sat on the parapet adjoining the entrance to the temple, unintentionally finding a way to negotiate with a society that was still divided along the lines of class, caste and religion.

There may not be too many examples of how the shehnai may have been played during his youth or before. Perhaps extant 78 rpm recordings with their three-minute time limit may throw some light on the matter. We do not know if there are any discs by Ali Baksh or any of his contemporaries though there are some of one Meer Saheb who was quite an artist. However, one can say with some conviction that no one got the shehnai to yield with so many nuances as Ustad Bismillah Khan did.

His breath control was truly amazing, even more so because he remained a heavy smoker, primarily of beedies, almost all his life. His tone till his 72nd or 73rd year was rich and full and the odd squeaky note a rarity. To quote an expression often used by old-time jazz musicians, he could make his instrument "talk". Bismillah Khan's music always had the quality of an intimate conversation. He was at his profound, moving best when he revealed the "personality" of a given raga through his melodies.

With a few deftly placed notes he would sketch out its contours and then gradually reveal its temperament and soul. He followed the age-old method of melodic construction and indeed reconstruction in creating a bandish in a chosen raga. There was no striving for abstraction by making frequent note clusters at the expense of the central melody as many of today's vocalists and instrumentalists do.

The shehnai discourages aesthetic tomfoolery because of the technical difficulties it imposes on the player. It is an outdoor instrument to be heard by a large number of people and so has to be handled with great care so as to remain in tune. True that the notes had to carry and were assisted in their flight and resonance in Khan Saheb's youth by surrounding temple architecture, which by the nature of its construction became an acoustic ally. Usually the notes of shehnai had to be high and clear with an easily definable melodic line leaving some scope for improvisation through layakari or variation in tempo. The playing perforce had to be close to a song, which was all to the good.

Khan Saheb was extremely fond of singing and could carry a melody well into his late 70s. He knew hundreds of thumris, dadras, chaitis, baramasas and khayals and punctuated his conversations with apt examples from any of these genres. Since he was a gregarious man he enjoyed the company of people he could regale with anecdotes on Varanasi, its lore and, of course, music.

Gautam Ghose made a long, lazy documentary in 35 mm colour on Bismillah Khan in the early 1990s and a former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Ain Rasheed Khan was roped in to do the interviewing. Alas, Rasheed Khan, despite being a rasika, was largely non-functional because he seemed too awed to make any kind of conversation with the maestro. But that did not deter Khan Saheb in any way.

He was in full command of the proceedings and captivated the `unseen audience' with his stories on Varanasi. Although he was not exactly forthcoming about his shehnai playing he did burst into song every now and then. At one point in the film he even said everyone in Varanasi was musical, including the barber who sang as he gave you a haircut. He then promptly enacted the droll comic scene for the camera.

He went on to elaborate the reason for his existence "pehle namaaz, uske baad riyaz" (first offering prayers to Allah and then rigorous practice on the shehnai). He was, as has often been quoted in the press, a deeply religious and humane man, whose love extended to all humanity. It was this humaneness and resilience that helped him through the turbulence of communal riots in Varanasi more than 40 years ago. He believed that wrong shall right itself and ultimately the supremacy of swaras shall prevail to make life worthwhile.

A man of rustic simplicity, he was wary of travelling abroad in the early days. Not only were the cultural differences too great but there were other difficulties of a more intimate comic nature. With time, however, he became a seasoned traveller and captivated audiences all over the world. He was happiest playing to Indian audiences; not the elite of the metropolitan cities but the ordinary music lover. The Westernised, rich, microscopic urban minority `was touched by the simplicity of his personality and the emotion in his playing'. But for him a real dialogue was possible only with the genuine rasika of the streets, particularly of Varanasi and other such culturally rich places.

Many honours came his way, including the Bharat Ratna, a distinction he shared with M.S. Subbulakshmi and Pandit Ravi Shankar. But worldly success meant nothing to him. He lived austerely, travelled by cycle rickshaw while at home and spent all his considerable income looking after his very large extended family. He accepted his role as patriarch with equanimity and grace.

An abiding memory of Bismillah Khan's musicality for this writer is a late 1960s LP (long-playing) recording of Bageshwari, a night raga. He evoked with ease his haunting quality of love lost and remembered, not with vain regret but wisdom. Thirty-five years after listening to the disc at a friend's place, the impact of the powerful music remains. There are memories too of the recordings of ragas such as Tilak Kamod, Kedar, Jaijawanti, Shyama Kalyan, Behag, Rageshwari and Malkauns. Of morning and afternoon ragas such as Ahir Bhairav, Todi, Lalit, Brindavani Sarang, Jaunpuri, Bhimpalasi or seasonal ragas such as Bahar and Malhar.

He is said to have received some instruction in the baaj of the Tantrakars who relied on dense improvisations on a raga structure to a complicated time cycle, in which the central melody flashed in and out in occasional refrain. Khan Saheb's own style was firmly influenced by the vocalists in his own environment and he felicitously absorbed the styles of improvisation of the great thumri singers of his time namely Vidyadhari Bai, Rasoolan Bai, her sister Batulan Bai, a forgotten virtuoso, Badi Moti Bai and Siddheswari Bai.

He pays rich tribute to the singers in the documentary on him by Gautam Ghose. The thumri is an extremely difficult form of vocal music and mastering it is the job of a lifetime. Anyone with a sweet, malleable voice can manage its outer form, which is both sentimental and erotic. What is difficult is understanding its core, which is rooted in khayal. Many thumris are sung as chotta khayals by exponents of a more "serious kind". The one great ambition of a thumri singer is to attain a certain elusive, mystical quality in the rendering where sringara and bhakti rasaas mingle.

Bismillah Khan understood the inner working of the fundamentally feminine form of the thumri and incorporated its most captivating and difficult features into his shehnai playing. When he improvised on the ascending and descending curves of a raga, he was not just making orally pleasing sound patterns. There was more to it than mere decoration. He was, when informed, opening new trains of experience of thoughts and feelings.

He played for Vijay Bhatt's hugely successful Hindi film Goonj Uthi Shehnai and his accompaniment to Lata Mangeshkar's rendering of the title song "Mere sur aur tere geet" is considered an ideal marriage of voice and instrument. Such perfect harmony can also be found in Lester Young's tenor saxophone playing behind Billie Halliday's jazz vocals in numerous recordings made together in the late 1930s and early 1940s in America. Bismillah Khan also played for a few other films, including Satyajit Ray's Jalsaghar (1958), which had music by Ustad Vilayat Khan, and more recently, Ashutosh Gowarikar's Swades.

He recorded duets with Vilayat Khan on the sitar and also with Prof. V.G. Jog on the violin. He also recorded with N. Rajam, an exceptional violinist trained in Hindustani music by Omkar Nath Thakur, and Shahid Parvez, a young sitarist of uncommon sensitivity. These recordings may not have been jugalbandhis in the strict sense of the term with each instrumentalist complementing the other to create a given composition but they most certainly made for lovely listening. EMI India released an album of his thumri singing.

Only one other instrumentalist apart from Bismillah Khan had the unique distinction of having his vocal recordings commercially released in old age - that was Mahadev Mishra, a highly accomplished tabaliya from Varanasi who had accompanied the finest thumri and khayal singers of his time and was a veritable treasure trove of old bandishes like Khan Saheb himself.

Khan Saheb's unusually robust constitution slowly began to buckle in his old age. He continued to give good, bad and indifferent concerts and make recordings all out of sheer financial necessity. He became aware of his mortality as his magical playing gradually fell away particularly in the last 15 years.

One, however, must remember him for his best work. He lasted as long as he did mainly due to the advent of the microphone but the glow in his playing which stayed with him for a long time was all his own. Now that Hindustani Margeeya Sangeet is at a critical juncture, bamboozled in turn by new rich businessmen, marketing and recording executives and audiences largely indifferent to truly engaging music, one can be grateful for having many recordings of sublime music by Ustad Bismillah Khan.

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